The Expressive E Osmose keyboard is creating a real buzz in the industry right now. Is it that rarest of things, a genuine “game changer” or is it destined to be another footnote in music tech history? In the first of our HOT TOPIC features, we asked our synth experts for their opinions.
ED – Right, then this Osmose thing. You two can’t stop talking about it, so it’s time we threw it into the debating ring! In the “Pro” corner, we have Rob Puricelli. Rob believes that Osmose could be a breakthrough in expressive playing. In the “Against” corner, we have Robin Vincent, who questions whether it really matters.
I want a good clean fight lads, with no mucking about…
Osmose: the debate
Robin Vincent: The Osmose is the latest in a long line of technologies designed to give the electronic keyboard player a deeper sense of expression. It’s like there’s something deep inside those fingers that needs to come out that current instruments cannot accommodate. Is it driven by envy of other musicians who emote through strings, pipes and physical space? Or is it because they must be able to capture the exact nuance of a Bedouin Oud in their latest soundtrack? It feels like the Osmose is beautifully overcompensating for something. So much music has been expressed through keyboards, with a lightness of touch, the flick of a mod wheel and 128 levels of velocity. What is it that we feel is absent that the Osmose can provide?
Rob Puricelli: For decades, synth players have sought to achieve the levels of expression inherently found in other instruments, such as guitars, brass, strings and woodwind. The ability to add delicate nuance to their sounds has been limited to velocity, aftertouch, pitch bend and modulation. Some instruments packed in a ribbon controller too, but even with all of these, the humble keyboard player was bereft of ways to emote via delicate, natural, human movements. But with the dawn of MIDI 2.0 and MPE, some manufacturers saw an opportunity to right this wrong, and none have stirred so many as Expressive E and their long-awaited Osmose, a keyboard that delivers nuanced expression coupled with a powerful synthesis engine.
Do we need more expression?
RV: Do you really feel that the work of, say, Jan Hammer, Herbie Hancock, or Stevie Wonder somehow lacks emotional expression?
RP: Absolutely not, but then they were all looking for greater ways to express themselves. For example, Jan Hammer, beyond his days with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was best known for squeezing out that legendary guitar sound made most famous in the Miami Vice theme. Herbie lauded the DX7 when it launched for the expression he got out of it with velocity and aftertouch. Stevie, more recently, has been a huge proponent of the Harpejji, which affords him guitar levels of expression but with a more keyboard-esque interface.
Would you say that there’s no place for enhanced expression being made available for keyboard players?
Can you have “too much” expression?
RV: No, but I am suggesting that expression already exists in their music. There’s a point of diminishing returns where all this technology isn’t going to add much to what the performance already contains through current means.
RP: But surely that implies that there is a threshold for means of expression? I don’t believe that is necessarily true. I think the Osmose delivers a number of deeply explorable avenues. Not least is the fact that a player can now play expressively with both hands without the need to use one hand for the pitch bend/mod wheel or ribbon. It seems to deliver not just new ways of expression but better ways of implementing existing expression. For example, how many of us wiggle our finger left and right when playing a lead sound, even though we know we would have to use a mod wheel to deliver that vibrato? The Osmose brings that back to the table many years after we saw it in the like of the GX1 or Ondes Martenot.
RV: I think there is a threshold. Maybe not on expression itself, but on our ability to capture and appreciate it. We are talking about electronics rather than organic resonators and vibrations. It’s like where you can have limitless sample rates, but there’s a point where we fail to notice the increased resolution.
We’ve had this sort of expression in the ROLI Seaboard and other MPE controllers, and I get the feeling these end up gathering dust in forgotten corners of the studio. Why would the Osmose be any different once we’re past the “oooo this is nice” feature?
A new synth is born?
RP: I think the Osmose goes beyond things like the Rise and other controllers because it is a standalone synth. I know that the Rise comes with some software synths that have been designed for it, but I think the Osmose will deliver a far more satisfying experience because it is intrinsically connected to the synth engine.
Some of the demos I’ve seen seem to deliver a far more accessible degree of expression. Also, unlike the squidgy Rise surface, you can approach it as a traditional piano/synth-type action and then begin to go deeper.
True, it may end up gathering dust and be a short-lived fad… time will tell, but I really do think that the standalone nature of the unit and a very competitive price point will see it taken up in bigger numbers than its competitors.
RV: The connection to the Haken Audio EaganMatrix is certainly an interesting one. The standalone nature of it will broaden its appeal. Although to get into the guts of it, you’ll still have to treat it as a software synth.
Where do you see it finding its place in the studio? Or do you think it’s more of a live-performance device?
RP: I think it can serve both purposes really well. You know when you see a Spitfire Audio library demo and they have those Monogram CC controllers to handle expression? Well, Osmose would allow you to free up that left hand, so for laying down orchestral tracks, I think Osmose could be a real boon. As for live use, Osmose would probably lend itself more to jazz players than conventional keys players in pop/rock bands. Although bands like Muse might lap this right up!
Will OSMOSE integrate?
RP: Do you think we will end up hearing Osmose sounds and more expressive keyboard parts in the coming months and years or not? Given your experience in the world of Eurorack, could you see it breaking new ground there?
RV: No, not in the slightest. I’ve always expected that we would hear sliding chords and polyphonic expression all over the place with MPE. And really, if it is there, I don’t think anyone has noticed. It’s a technology that is fun to play with but is largely lost in the process of building tracks or writing music.
Eurorack barely has velocity. The idea that you would patch in multiple levels of manually operated modulation is, in my view, exhausting! I’ve tried MPE controller rings, light beams and touch plates, and it makes my arms ache just thinking about it. The expression is already there through the curves and possibilities of LFOs, time, voltage manipulation and interfacing with signals. Adding an Osmose would turn your lovingly crafted machine of mystery into just another synthesizer.
What Osmose signals to me is another nail in the coffin of the career of the instrument player. Coming from the insatiable desire of the keyboard player to sound like everybody else. In expanding the reach of the keys, we narrow the scope and possibility of other musicians. But at the moment the Osmose still requires talent to extract a convincing performance. How long until we get the Osmose equivalent of 20 quid MIDI Packs to do all the expression for you? I know it’s a cliche, and every new technology gets “concerned individuals” shouting about how it’s the end of everything, but maybe this is the tipping point.
Will Osmose replace musicians?
RP: It’s interesting to hear your argument about it putting people out of work. I remember when the Musician’s Union here in the U.K. became most vocal on the subject of Fairlight’s putting real musicians out of work. Now, it seems, sample library developers pay out millions in royalties to orchestras, and everyone seems happy!
But I do take your point. I don’t necessarily think that Osmose players will be looking to usurp string sections and the like. But given the hugely impressive sound engine, we may see some interesting and unique synth performances. And that’s another reason I believe that the Osmose is a force for good. It will allow keyboard players to be even more uniquely and individually expressive than ever before.
RV: So, did Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer result in more Shakuhachi players finding work? I don’t know; it’s an interesting train of thought that won’t actually do anything to hold back the march of western musical colonial and appropriational progress (if that’s a thing).
Many years ago, I built a GigaStudio system for David Arnold. And “technology putting musicians out of work” had become a hot topic (again). We talked about it a lot in reference to his work. He said that the GigaStudio system enabled him to employ more musicians and use more orchestras because he didn’t have to rely on the imagination of the producers to understand what an orchestra could contribute.
RP: It’s a good point, and I can see the Osmose allowing people like David to fully and accurately mock up certain parts to appease producers. But, invariably, the end product is played by a human on the real deal, so everyone’s a winner.
I just think the Osmose, rather than looking to usurp other “real” musicians from their day jobs, simply affords keyboard players the levels of expression others have enjoyed for many centuries. I also think that, more than any other MPE-based controller, it WILL inspire new music where its use is more obvious and noticeable.
The final replacement for “live” musicians?
RV: I think my point is that it’s not “invariably“; there’s less and less a reason to employ a real musician. It’s like a producer walks into a room of musicians and asks if anyone can play flute – “I can” says the keyboard player.
“Ok, what about a Chinese Moon guitar?”
“Oh, me, I can” says the same keyboardist.
“And I’ll need some strings”
“I’ve got you covered”
Etc etc, on and on, until everyone rises up and murders the rude-arse keyboard player. There seems to be this sense of entitlement that keyboard players must have access to the same level of expression as everyone else. But not in order to make a piano sound better, but so they can mimic and take the artistry away from every other musician who has worked on their instrument. It’s, I don’t know, a bit rude?
RP: Haha! Too funny! I really don’t see it in such an adversarial way. No producer is going to ask a keyboard player to do the flute part if there’s a flautist in the room. But for the upcoming synth duo who want a small flute melody and want it to sound authentic, they may defer to the Osmose. But again, I see Osmose as opening up expression in synthesis, not in plagiarising pre-existing instruments. The same went for sampling, all those years ago, and you and I are both old enough to remember that. Yet, here we are, and no line of instruments has been made redundant.
And anyway, guitarists, violinists, sax players, flautists and more have all taken steps into the world of synthesis. They’ve added OUR unique capabilities to their instruments, e.g. Akai’s EWI, Yamaha’s WX, Roland’s GR Series. And as a drummer, there are a myriad options in the world of synthesized and sampled beats. I really don’t subscribe to the idea that keyboard players are moving out of their lane, so to speak.
Will Osmose change the way we hear music?
RV: I think the crux of the matter is whether Osmose will contribute to music in a meaningful way. Very few things are actual game-changers. In my view, MPE has been more of an interesting curiosity than something that’s impacted the industry. Maybe this will, or maybe the point is that we’re not supposed to notice.
Do you think it will sell beyond the eager enthusiast?
RP: Well, I had no real interest in the ROLI Seaboard Rise but the Osmose really excites me. I think that is down to two things; A built-in synth engine and traditional keys. The Rise had neither and that, for me, consigned it to the eager enthusiast brigade.
Will Osmose be a proverbial “game-changer”? Probably not. I can’t see the traditional keyboard mechanism being replaced anytime soon in favour of their technology. Will it complement a player’s existing live or recording rig? Absolutely. But it will require the likes of MIDI 2.0 and MPE to settle down and bed in before we see any form of wider adoption. However, top marks to Expressive E for producing something new, different and thought-provoking!
RV: Well, we’ll both be able to try it out at the forthcoming Synth East in March.
ED: So there you have it, two titans of synth opinions have battled it out and made excellent arguments both for and against the Osmose. What are your opinions? Have you got one on order? Do you think it’s a genuine “game changer” or is it just another fad we’ll have forgotten about in six months?
Expressive E Osmose
- Expressive E Omose: Expressive E